Ursilla and the Selkie-Folk

Selkie.jpg

Mythologies from various cultures have given us numberless tales where the world of humans and that of animals blend into each other. Shapeshifting or therianthropy is a common motif appearing in various nations across the continents where human beings possess the magical ability to metamorphose into other animals. From the 2nd BC century where Pausanias recounts the story of Lycaon, the first lycanthrope or werewolf, to the cave drawings found at Les Trois Frères, in France, and from the Irish cycle narrating the transformation of Lir’s children into swans to the Navajo’s tribal belief in skinwalkers, shapeshifting is deeply rooted in humanity’s imagined reality.

A particular form of therianthropy can be found in Gaelic accounts from the Northern isles (Orkney and Shetland) where narratives of the selkie folk abound.  The selkie folk are mythological beings capable of changing from seal to human form by shedding their skin. The majority of these yarns centre on the love affairs between mortal men and female selkies.

A man steals a female selkie’s skin, finds her naked on the sea shore, and compels her to become his wife. But the wife always yearns to reunite with her brethren in the sea, and often stares with longing at the ocean. She usually bears several children by her human husband, but once she discovers her skin, she leaps into the sea, abandoning forever the children she once loved and took care of.

Sometimes, one of her children discovers or knows the whereabouts of the skin. Others  it is revealed she already had a first husband of her own kind, from whom she was forced to separate. In some versions, the selkie wife is never seen again by the family in her human form, but the children are approached by a large seal, the animal “greeting” them plaintively.

Male selkies are rumoured to be very handsome as humans and invincible when it comes to seducing human women, usually seeking those dissatisfied with their lives, such as married women waiting for their fishermen husbands.

During the 19th century, in 1893, the Orkney antiquarian and folklorist, Walter Traill Dennison,  published in the pages of the Scottish Antiquary the semi-mythical yarn of an Orcadian woman who engages in an affair with a selkie man and gives birth to children with distinctive physical traits. 

Dennison, reluctant to ”bring shame on the family and embarass her descendants” and willing to protect her honour and reputation, doesn’t disclose her real name. Instead, he calls her Ursilla.

Ursilla was the daughter of a laird belonging to one of the oldest families in Orkney.

She was handsome and pretty, but had a sternness of manner, and that firmness of features which often presents a masculine exterior in families of Norse blood, and often hides, as with a film of ice, a loving heart within.

Ursilla was not one to wait patiently till some one turned up to offer himself as her husband. Indeed, had any one presumed to approach her as a lover, she would have treated him with haughty disdain, regarding his bold presumption as sufficient ground for his rejection.

She determined not to be chosen, but to choose for herself.

Her choice fell on a young handsome fellow, who acted as her father’s barn-man. But she knew that any disclosure of her passion would mortally offend her old father and bitterly mortify his family pride and might lead him to disinherit her.

So she locked up her love in her own breast; kept watchful eye on the object of her love, and treated him to a full share of the scoldings she daily bestowed on the servants.

When, however, her father died, and her [dowry] was safe, she disclosed her passion to the young man, and commanded him to marry her—a command which he was too gallant to disobey.

Her marriage excited among the gentry great indignation; to think that one of their class should marry a farm-servant. Ursilla treated their contempt with indifference; she made a good housewife, managed her house well, and also, it was said, managed her husband and the farm.

Yes, Ursilla was married, and all went well and happily, so far as outward appearances showed; Yet Ursilla was not happy. If disappointed in her husband, she was far too proud to acknowledge it, knowing that the gentry would only say in derision, “She shaped her own cloth, let her wear her ill-fitting dress.”

Whatever the cause might be, there was a terrible want — a want that Ursilla felt bitterly.

And she was not the woman to sit down and cry over her sorrow; she determined to console herself by having intercourse with one of the selkie-folk.

She went at early morning and sat on a rock at high-tide mark, and when it was high tide she shed seven tears in the sea. People said they were the only tears she ever shed. But you know this is what one must do if she wants speech with the selkie-folk. Well, as the first glimpse of dawn made the waters grey, she saw a big selkie swimming for the rock.

He raised his head, and says he to her, “What’s your will with me, fair lady?”

She likely told him what was in her mind; and he told her he would visit her at the seventh stream [spring tide], for that was the time he could come in human form.

So, when the time was come, he came; and they met over and over again. And, doubtless, it was not for good that they met so often. Anyway, when Ursilla’s bairns were born every one of them had web hands and webbed feet, like the paws of a selkie.

And did not that tell a tale?

The midwife clipped the webs between every finger, and between every toe of each bairn.

“She showed the shears that she used to my grandmother.” So said the narrator. And many a clipping Ursilla clipped, to keep the fins from growing together again; and the fins not being allowed to grow in their natural way, grew into a horny crust on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. And this horny substance is seen in many of Ursilla’s descendants to this day.

Whatever may be thought of this tale, its last sentence is quite true.

The horn still appears on feet and hands of some of the lady’s descendants. One, two, or three in a family may show the abnormal horny substance; while brothers and sisters are entirely free from the troublesome horn.

Some ten years ago, while engaging a harvest hand, I said to one of these men, “Of course, you can do all kinds of harvest work?”

“Oh na, sir,” said he, “hid’s nae use tae tell a lee aboot hid; but I cinno’ bind a sheaf wi’ this plaguid horn in me livs.”

Another of the same family told me that when, through the growth of the horn, he was unable to walk or work, he would, with hammer and chisel, cut off large slices of horn from the soles of his feet. This growth is by no means confined to those engaged in manual labour. I have felt it on the hands of one of the same race who followed a profession where manual labour was not required.

This curious phenomenon seems well worthy of careful investigation by the physiologist. Pity it could not be traced to the seal; we might then be in sight of the missing link.

Many wild tales were told of the offspring of such strange parentage who had webbed hands and feet; but the foregoing will serve to illustrate a once popular belief.

In his account, Dennison emphasised the distinction between fact and fiction, reminding his readers that the information provided until Ursilla’s marriage to her human husband was true but the second half of the account was merely “an imaginary tale, invented by gossips, in order to account for a strange phenomenon visibly seen on her descendants.”

Dennison himself lent no credibility to the fantastical elements sprinkled throughout the tale and only exposed it to the public to better ”illustrate one of the popular beliefs.” However, even though he disbeileved the folklore origin of this horny crust found on the hands and feet of some of Ursilla’s descendants, the condition at least was medically and scientifically verified.

In the end, what are we to infer from such colourful narration? Is the existence of selkies a charming but ignorant way to offer an explanation for a medical anomaly for which they couldn’t account back then? Do the selkies function as a symbol of sexual desire that must not be suppressed but satisfied? Are they an expression of longing for things beyond our mortal reach, for the forbidden, for what we term as ”the other”? Or are they a reminder of sin and loss of honour associated with spousal infidelity?

No matter the meaning we attach to it, one thing is certain: the call of the wild and the primordial still resounds in our collective unconscious, harkening back to millions of years when we ran alongside beasts and shared a home with them.

 

 

The Philosophy of Fantasy

Lilaia Moreli - Words Are Sacred

Circe_by_Wright_Barker_(1889)                                  Painting by Wright Barker, Circe, 1889

”To define is to limit,” Oscar Wilde claims in The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Although a remark that holds great truth and wisdom, I’ll make an attempt to delineate what’s this beast called fantasy. Because if we want to dig into something and come to grips with how it functions and operates, then first we need to understand what it is that we’re talking about.

Fantasy is a genre with its own form and symbols. The term ”fantasy” that sets it apart from other genres refers to phenomena, situations, places and beings that haven’t come to existence and cannot exist in reality.

The roots of the imaginary explanation of the world are as ancient as humanity itself. The primitive man, prey to an alien and…

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Top 5 Ladies of Fiction and Myth

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Rhiannon riding in Arberth. From The Mabinogion, translated by Lady Charlotte Guest, 1877

One of the joys of reading books is the discovery of characters who are so unique and intriguing that, even though they are the fruit of fancy and wild imagination from the part of their creators, they possess so much fire and life they literally leap from the pages as if actual beings of flesh and blood. For centuries, literature and storytelling has been mainly dominated by men, even though the tide has shifted nowadays. However, even when men had taken the stage, many of them managed to craft some very alluring female characters who are still worthy of much talk and admiration from readers for their stunning and highly complex personalities.

Here, I’ve singled out five female characters who have had a most profound impact on me and whose web of seduction still has a hold over my psyche.

5. Marian Halcombe

Marian Halcombe is a character from Wilkie Collins’s novel The Woman in White. Set during the Victorian era where gender roles are distinct and firmly established, Marian is a breath of fresh air with her unconventional ideas regarding the position of women in society and her refusal to conform to a male-dominated world and bend under its will. With endless amount of agency, she sticks to her guns, treading upon the path she considers the right one, choosing to honour her own values instead of the ones the status quo adheres to.

Far from a weak, spineless and meek creature, she is guided by the love she harbours for her half-sister, Laura. Ever loyal and attentive to her, she protects and defends her at every turn against the malice and wicked intentions of her husband and isn’t afraid to stand up to him when she feels  her sister is threatened. Brave and courageous, she is a symbol of all these people who have the guts to be who they want to be in a society that demands uniformity and compliance.

4. Jane Eyre

The protagonist of the titular novel by Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre is one of the most celebrated female characters in the history of literature. And rightly so. A coming of age story, we get to see how Jane grows up and matures into a woman. Having suffered a lot in her childhood and greatly mistreated by her aunt and cousins, from a little girl Jane fervently wants to find people in her life with whom to share her love. Not the most physically appealing person, many of the people around her judge her solely based on that fact. However, Jane’s passion isn’t to be curbed. As she grows older, she’s shown to form a friendly attachment to Helen Burns and Miss Temple and then later to fall in love with her employer, Mr. Rochester.

But even though Jane hungers for love, she values freedom, dignity and self-respect far more. A devoted Christian who despises hypocrisy and plain cold religious sentiment without substance beneath, she refuses to allow Rochester to treat her as another one of his mistresses and rejects Reed’s bloodless and frigid proposal of marriage. Even though she loves Rochester, she doesn’t become a prey to this love. Instead, she chooses to remain true to her principles. Only when she has won her freedom and her financial independence does she come back to Rochester and accepts his proposal since now she stands on equal grounds with him.

Jane Eyre is an inspiring character because she shows that, no matter how challenging and heart-wrenching is to keep our integrity intact in a society steeped in hypocrisy and injustice, what truly matters is to lead the life our conscience dictates us to lead and not a faceless majority. Because before we live with others, first we need to live with ourselves.

3. Clarimonde

Once again, the titular character from Théophile Gautier‘s short story brings to life a woman full of beauty, eroticism and seduction. A vampiress, Clarimonde falls in love with a priest, Romuald, who reciprocates her feelings, and lures him into abandoning his duties with the promise of eternal love and happiness. While not the first female vampire to grace the literary pages, Clarimonde is undoubtedly a unique conception, far removed in personality and habits from her literary vampire sisters.

While she needs Romuald’s blood to survive, she only consumes a few drops, therefore she’s a far cry from those deadly, ruthless vampiresses who’re solely consumed by bloodlust and have to murder to survive. What’s more, Clarimonde is genuinely in love with Romuald and the time he spends in her company and in her arms is filled with passion, desire and warmth. Most vampires in fiction of 19th and early 20th century involved with mortals seek nothing more than to satisfy their violent cravings with the mortals fulfilling the role of blood vessels under the guise of romantic love. But not Clarimonde.

One of the themes that permeates Gautier’s story is that of love as a power far greater than death. When Romuald is called to give last rites to a great courtesan who has fallen ill, he recognizes her as Clarimonde. When he goes to her in the castle, instead of giving her last rites and allowing her to die, he bestows upon her a kiss. With the power of his love for her passing through his lips, Romuald kisses Clarimonde and brings her back to life.

But the same thing applies to Romuald, for Clarimonde through her passion and love restores him to life and takes him far away from the coldness and stiffness his duties require, thus awaking his desires which until then were dead. An oxymoron given the fact that vampires have long been associated with death and decay.

However, the desires and fantasies she awakens in Romuald are condemned by the Church. Eroticism itself, which is the foundation and source of all life, is condemned.

Father Sérapion takes Romuald to Clarimonde’s tomb. He reveals her body is miraculously preserved thanks to Romuald’s blood. Father Sérapion pours holy water on her corpse. She crumbles into dust, but returns to Romuald later during the night and admonishes him for his betrayal, vanishing once and for all. Of particular interest are Clarimonde’s last words to Romuald which reveal her to be an innocent victim rather than the fiend Father Sérapion portrayed her to be:

Unhappy man! Unhappy man! What hast thou done? Wherefore have hearkened to that imbecile priest? Wert thou not happy? And what harm had I ever done thee that thou shouldst violate my poor tomb, and lay bare the miseries of my nothingness? All communication between our souls and our bodies is henceforth for ever broken. Adieu! Thou wilt yet regret me!

Of course, the tale concludes with these words from Romuald who admits that the love he shares with Clarimonde is a far greater power than anything on heaven and earth:

Alas! she spoke truly indeed. I have regretted her more than once, and I regret her still. My soul’s peace has been very dearly bought. The love of God was not too much to replace such a love as hers.

Now that is what I call a singular female creation.

2. Brunhilda

Brunhilda is a character from Ludwig Tieck’s Gothic tale Wake not the Dead. Badass, merciless, cold, stunning, lethal and yet utterly tragic. Once dead, her husband, Walter, decides to bring her back to life with the help of a sorcerer only to realize that the magic has gone horribly right. Thoughtless and impetuous, Walter ”pierces the deep abyss that separates earth from heaven”. Brunhilda returns to life but not as a mortal. She’s nothing but a corpse that requires blood to reanimate itself. A far cry from her warm and inviting kin, Clarimonde, Brunhilda exhibits a cold eroticism that scatters only death in its wake.

And yet, she’s not acting out of spite or malice or hatred for humanity. She didn’t choose to be a vampiress, condemned to this torment for all eternity. But now that is her nature and she must obey her thirst for living blood. Wake not the Dead is a tragedy and the reader cannot help but feel both terror and pity towards Brunhilda who’s trapped in this never-ending hell.

In fact, there’s a deep sense of justice and satisfaction when Brunhilda turns against Walter and calls him out on his actions, sharply reminding him that it’s him who is the true monster and not her.

When Walter returned home in the evening and laid him down to repose as usual by Brunhilda’s side, the magic power of her breath produced no effect upon him; and for the first time during many months did he close his eyes in a natural slumber. Yet hardly had he fallen asleep, ere a pungent smarting pain disturbed him from his dreams; and. opening his eyes, he discerned, by the gloomy rays of a lamp, that glimmered in the apartment what for some moments transfixed him quite aghast, for it was Brunhilda, drawing with her lips, the warm blood from his bosom. The wild cry of horror which at length escaped him, terrified Brunhilda, whose mouth was besmeared with the warm blood. “Monster!” exclaimed he, springing from the couch, “is it thus that you love me?”

“Aye, even as the dead love,” replied she, with a malignant coldness.

“Creature of blood!” continued Walter, “the delusion which has so long blinded me is at an end: thou are the fiend who hast destroyed my children–who hast murdered the offspring of my vessels.” Raising herself upwards and, at the same time, casting on him a glance that froze him to the spot with dread, she replied. “It is not I who have murdered them;–I was obliged to pamper myself with warm youthful blood, in order that I might satisfy thy furious desires–thou art the murderer!”–These dreadful words summoned, before Walter’s terrified conscience, the threatening shades of all those who had thus perished; while despair choked his voice.

“Why,” continued she, in a tone that increased his horror, “why dost thou make mouths at me like a puppet? Thou who hadst the courage to love the dead–to take into thy bed, one who had been sleeping in the grave, the bed-fellow of the worm–who hast clasped in thy lustful arms, the corruption of the tomb–dost thou, unhallowed as thou art, now raise this hideous cry for the sacrifice of a few lives?–They are but leaves swept from their branches by a storm.–Come, chase these idiot fancies, and taste the bliss thou hast so dearly purchased.” So saying, she extended her arms towards him; but this motion served only to increase his terror, and exclaiming: “Accursed Being,”–he rushed out of the apartment.

Brunhilda, despite her bloodlust and killing spree, is a profoundly sympathetic character, one who suffers unjustly due to having her agency violently stripped from her. A character whose dark charm is meant to haunt the reader the way it has haunted Walter.

1. Rhiannon

Rhiannon is a character from the first and third branch of the Mabinogion, a medieval Welsh collection of prose stories. An Otherwordly woman, she is beautiful,  strong-minded, intelligent, politically strategic, generous, very magically potent and of great physical strength. Well-spoken and a deadpan snarker, she chooses Pwyll, prince of Dyfed, as her consort, in preference to another man to whom she has already been betrothed by orchestrating an elaborate plan to fulfill her wish. The couple has a son, Pryderi, but the babe is abducted and Rhiannon is wrongly accused of infanticide. She’s unjustly punished, though her punishment is lifted when the child is found and returned to his parents. As a widow, she marries Manawydan of the British royal family, and has further adventures involving enchantments.

From the moment her character appeared in the Mabinogion I fell in love with her. She’s the embodiment of all the positive qualities in a woman: beauty, strength, will and agency. But the fact that she suffers for years unjustly helps make her even more appealing because she bears it all with great patience and a majestic grace that speak volumes about her fortitude and the magnitude of her personality.

So, who are some of your favourite female characters and why? Please, share your views.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Book Review: The Ruby

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Painting by Frederick Howard Michael, Titania, 1897

”The Ruby” is a short story from the collection El Azul written by the Nicaraguan poet and writer Rubén Darío. An exquisite sample of Hispanic Modernism, ”The Ruby” narrates the story of how the titular gemstone was first birthed into the world.

The gnomes, labourers deep within the entrails of the earth to extract precious stones, find themselves in great turmoil when their leader, Puck, announces that a Parisian alchemist has constructed, through the means of sympathetic magic, a false ruby. Having travelled to Paris himself, Puck has snatched such a false stone from the golden chocker of a sleeping woman and has brought it as proof back to his fellow gromes who imprecate the alchemist as a blasphemous impostor.

Then, he proceeds to narrate the true tale regarding the events that led to the natural creation of the ruby. One day, the gnomes were in strike and they crawled out of the dark belly of the earth and into the sunlight. Puck came across a river into which a few stunning, mortal women were bathing. One of them catching his fancy,  he grabbed her by force and took her to live with him back into the subterranean cave.

Puck adored the woman, toiling night and day to pluck out the gemstones so as to scatter them all around his bed where the woman passed her days in languid nakedness. The woman, though, didn’t reciprocate his feelings because she had promised her heart to another and they had found a unique way of communicating with each other. From the depths of the dark cave, she sent her sighs to her lover and they, penetrating through the crust of the earth, reached him. In return, her lover had taken to kissing the roses of a garden and every time he scattered his kisses, the woman moved her lips as if receiving them.

One day, Puck, having sweated to pull out a passel of diamonds, threw away his hammer recklessly, a gesture which smashed the diamonds into tiny pieces, and went to sleep. He woke up because of the pained sounds the woman made. The hammer having created a hole in the cave’s wall, the woman saw this as a chance to escape and unite with her lover. But in her haste, she didn’t pay attention to the diamond-littered ground, stepped on it and fell, cutting her feet and the rest of her body. From her flowing blood, the diamonds turned red, the woman ending up lifeless.

And that’s how the rubies came into the world.

Having heard the tale, the gnomes crush the false ruby and start dancing with joviality, surrounded by the glimmering beauty and light of the precious stones wedged into the cave’s walls.

In the end, Puck sings out a hymn to the Woman, his last phrase, ”¡Y tu, Mujer, eres – espiritu y carne – toda Amor! (And you, Woman, are – spirit and flesh – all Love!).

Upon the first reading, ”The Ruby” comes across as a typical child of the Hispanic Modernist movement: magnificent descriptions, evocation of the senses, references to mythological beings, tones of fantastic elements and a love story swimming in a sea of nostalgia and romanticism.

In fact, the lush descriptions and the beauty of the prose stand out to such a degree that an unsuspected reader unfamiliar with the movement might come to view this as nothing more than an enjoyable yarn that excites and awakens the imagination.

But ”The Ruby” is much more than a pretty fruit of an overactive mind. Rubén Darío had something meaningful and important to get across and he found a very clever and moving way of delivering his message.

”The Ruby”, through the embedded love story, takes the form of an allegory. Puck compares and contrasts most vividly the birth of the false and the true ruby. The false is created effortlessly, with cheap materials and quickly. On the other hand, the real one requires suffering, blood, disregard of danger and genuine passion.

In a nutshell, Darío concludes that imitation lacks lustre and substance while originality is full of life, an honest baring of the soul. In the battle between hocus pocus and love, the latter is crowned victor.

But Rubén Darío is not merely interested in the general idea of imitation and originality. One of the most significant themes of Hispanic Modernism is that of art itself. The Nicaraguan artist takes a definitive stance and declares that real art disdains pale tricks. Instead, it demands effort and pain and fervency and unquenchable longing.

True literature is a fruit of blood, passion and love. For, after all, as Puck remarks, ”Cuando el hombre ama de veras, su pasión lo penetra todo y es capaz de traspasar la tierra (When man truly loves, his passion penetrates everything and is capable of piercing through the earth).

 

 

 

The Great Myths #33: The Child Cúchulainn Gets His Name (Celtic)

Human Pages

myths_and_legends3b_the_celtic_race_28191029_281478031515129When Culand the smith offered Conchubur his hospitality, he said that a large host should not come, for the feast would be the fruit not of lands and possessions but of his tongs and his two hands. Conchubur went with fifty of his oldest and most illustrious heroes in their chariots. First, however, he visited the playing field, for it was his custom when leaving or returning to seek the boys’ blessing; and he saw Cú Chulaind driving the ball past the three fifties of boys and defeating them. When they drove at the hole, Cú Chulaind filed the hole with his balls, and the boys could not stop them; when the boys drove at the hole, he defended it alone, and not a single ball went in. When they wrestled, he overthrew the three fifties of boys by himself, but all of them together could not overthrow him. When…

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Faerie Brides, Drowned Towns and the Door to the Otherworld in Welsh Folklore

Under the influence!

This article was originally posted on the #FolkloreThursday.com as Folklore of the Welsh Lakes: Reflecting on Faerie Brides, Drowned Towns, and the Otherworldby zteve t evans September 28th, 2017.

Aske Edvard Munch [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Welsh Lakes

There are may lakes scattered around Wales, each with their own unique characteristics and history. Many also have the most amazing legends and folklore associated with them, and the purpose of this work is to discuss some of them. This work does not attempt to be academic or scholarly. Instead, it attempts to explore thoughts that are more intuitive and reflective, and hopefully look towards stimulating ideas within the reader to construct their own interpretations of the folk tales and lakes mentioned should they wish to. 

A few things to note: Articles on the following lakes (Lake Bala also known as Llyn Tegid, Llyn Barfog, Kenfig Pool, Llyn Coch or…

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The Philosophy of Fantasy

Circe_by_Wright_Barker_(1889)

                                  Painting by Wright Barker, Circe, 1889

”To define is to limit,” Oscar Wilde claims in The Portrait of Dorian Gray. Although a remark that holds great truth and wisdom, I’ll make an attempt to delineate what’s this beast called fantasy. Because if we want to dig into something and come to grips with how it functions and operates, then first we need to understand what it is that we’re talking about.

Fantasy is a genre with its own form and symbols. The term ”fantasy” that sets it apart from other genres refers to phenomena, situations, places and beings that haven’t come to existence and cannot exist in reality.

The roots of the imaginary explanation of the world are as ancient as humanity itself. The primitive man, prey to an alien and terrifying world that at times seemed chaotic and cruel and to the ”monstrous” aspect of the universe, had to  hold on to something in order to understand not only his surroundings but his own identity and his relation to the natural environment around him.

The first attempt to fit the world into some semblance of a structure was mythology. The tribe, sitting around the campfire, listened with ecstasy to the storyteller, whose purpose was to placate the fear of the members of the tribe and offer some kind of meaning to life and the natural world.

The philosophic basis of the fantastic revolves around the clash between the rational and the irrational, between the logical and the absurd. The unnatural invades the natural, and the world is destroyed and recreated, because imagination itself provides the writer with endless possibilities as well as the freedom to express them.

Mythology, by nature, and most of the fantastic moves within an undefined frame of space and time. This lack of a particular space and time is what renders the genre applicable and relevant to all people and to any age.

The structuralist literary critic Tzvetan Todorov maintains the idea that the fantastic arises when characters and readers are confronted with issues and questions regarding reality. Man, experiencing the terrible gulf between night and day, between birth and death, finds recourse in conceiving another reality that borrows elements from the one in which he lives. This new reality undermines the existing one, flouts the laws that govern nature and the universe, confutes man’s knowledge and proves the limitations by which man is fettered.

In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the titular character says to Horatio, ”There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” These ”undreamt of” things are exactly those who give voice and flesh to the fantastic.

Through the fantastic man strives to confront and surpass the finite of human life, experience and knowledge. It’s a form of rebellion where man tries to break free from his own limitations.

The burning issue in the literature of fantasy is precisely the showdown between the finite aspect of human existence and a vast, infinite world that perplexes, challenges and overwhelms us. Fantasy works borrow elements from reality and transform them, building worlds that differ, either slightly or vastly, from our own. These worlds essentially reinvent our own and, by undermining the knowledge we already have in our possession, prove once more the finite of human life that we refuse to accept and against which we display a mighty resistance.

Animals that feel, think and talk like humans, humans who morph into animals, islands that appear and disappear at will, worlds separated by veils, magic that alters the very fabric of space and time, fairies, elves, dragons, vampires, werewolves and a bevy of other supernatural creatures who coexist with humans, imaginary lands one can travel to through invisible portals, realms beneath lakes or seas, worlds that spring to life through the pages of a book, spells that master the forces of nature, potions that make people fall in love, swords that slay immortal creatures, songs that put people to sleep and sorcery that violates the boundaries between life and death are only a short sample of the fantastic.

In the literature of fantasy borders collapse; everything’s compatible and possible, no matter how illogical it might seem. The principal question that permeates and governs the fantastic is ”what if?” That’s the thought that propels all writers of the fantastic. It’s a thought that allows imagination to blend into reality, that allows the natural and the unnatural to engage into an endless wooing, that allows the rational and the irrational to marry.

It’s through this ”romance” that we satisfy our deepest desire: to come in contact, even for a fleeting moment, with that we have dared conceive of only in a flight of our wildest dreams. The fantastic helps us read and view reality from another perspective, refracted but not distorted. After all, it’s no coincidence that it frequently flourishes and makes its strongest comeback during times of historical effervescence and upheaval. Those are the times when the primeval monsters wake up from their hibernation to find their way into the pages of literature. The fantastic, after all, is nothing but a reflection of our times, an image of a sociopolitical reality observed through a concave mirror.

 

 

 

 

 

Sir Galahad the Perfect Knight

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Sir Galahad first appeared in medieval Arthurian romance in the Lancelot-Grail cycle of works and then later in Le Morte d’Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory.  He was the illegitimate son of Sir Lancelot and Elaine of Corbenic and became one of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table.  When he came of age he was considered the best knight in the world and the perfect knight and was renowned for his gallantry and purity becoming one of only three Knights of the Round Table to achieve the Holy Grail.  The other two were Sir Bors and Sir Percival.  Pieced together here is a brief look at his early life and how through his immaculate behavior he rose to such an exalted status  achieving the Holy Grail and a spiritual dimension which remained frustratingly out of reach of King Arthur, Sir Lancelot and most of the the other Knights of the Round Table and concludes by comparing his achievements with those of King Arthur and Sir Lancelot.

King Pelles

King Pelles the lord of Corbenic the Grail Castle, in the land of Listeneise  and was Galahad’s maternal grandfather.  He was also one of the line of the guardians of the Holy Grail. In some Arthurian romances  Joseph of Arimathea brought the Grail to Britain and gave it to Bron, his brother-in-law, to keep safe and Pelles was descended from Bron. In some versions of Arthurian romance Pelles is also known as the Fisher King or Maimed King.

Pelles had been wounded in the legs or groin resulting in a loss of fertility and his impotence was reflected in the well-being his of kingdom making it infertile and a Wasteland. This is why he was sometimes called the Maimed King.  The only activity he appeared able to do was go fishing.  His servants had to carry him to to the water’s edge and there he would spend his time fishing which is why  he is sometimes called the Fisher King.   Galahad was important to King Pelles as he was the only one who could heal his wound.

Elaine and Lancelot

King Pelles had a daughter named Elaine and he had been forewarned by magical means that Lancelot would become the father of his daughter’s child.  This child would grow to become the world’s best and most perfect knight and be chosen by God to achieve the Holy Grail.  He was the chosen one who would be the only one pure enough to be able to heal his wound.  There was a problem though. Lancelot was dedicated solely to Guinevere, his true love and would never knowingly sleep with another woman.   Nevertheless Pelles was desperate for the liaison to take place and decided to seek magical help from Dame Brusen.  She was one of Elaine’s servants who was skilled in the art of sorcery to help his cause.  She gives Pelles a magic ring for Elaine to wear which gives her the likeness of Guinevere.

Elaine wears the magic ring and transforms into the a double of Guinevere.  Lancelot is fooled by the masquerade and they sleep together.  When he discovers the deception he is angry and ashamed and threatens to kill her.  She tells hims she is with his child and he relents but leaves Corbenic.

Elaine in due course gives birth to his son who she names Galahad.  This is the name Lancelot was baptized with when he was born.   It was the Lady of the Lake who fostered and raised Lancelot in her magical realm and it was she who named him Lancelot du Lac, or Lancelot of the Lake.

The madness of Lancelot

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Soon afterwards Elaine goes to a feast at Arthur’s court.  Although Lancelot is also there he refuses to acknowledge her, making her sorrowful and lovelorn.   She calls her servant Dame Brusen to her and tells her how she is feeling and asks for her help.  Dame Brusen tells Elaine that she will fix it so Lancelot lies with her that night.  Pretending to Lancelot that Guinevere has summoned him she leads him to her chamber, but it is Elaine waiting there for him in bed in the dark and again he sleeps with her.

While he is with Elaine, Guinevere summons him and is furious to discover he is not in his bed chamber and even more so when she discovers him lying with Elaine in hers.  She tells him that she never wants to see or talk to him again and will have nothing more to do with him.  Lancelot is so upset and disturbed at what has happened and with Guinevere’s admonishments that madness takes him and he leaps out of the window running off into the wilderness.

Lost in madness and consumed by grief and sorrow he wanders alone through the wild places before he eventually reaches Corbenic where Elaine finds him insane her garden. She takes him to a chamber in Corbenic Castle where he is allowed to view the Holy Grail, but only through a veil.  Nevertheless this veiled sight of the holy relic is enough to cure him of his insanity.  Although he sees it through the veil, having committed adultery he is not pure enough so he can never be the perfect knight that achieves the Grail.

When his son is born he finally forgives Elaine but will not marry her and instead returns to the court of King Arthur.  The child is named Galahad, after his father’s former name and given to his great aunt to bring up in a nunnery.  Merlin foretells that Galahad will be even more valiant than his father and will achieve the Holy Grail.

Galahad’s quest for the Holy Grail

It was not until Galahad became a young man that he was reunited with Sir Lancelot, his father, who makes him a knight.   Lancelot then takes Galahad to Camelot at Pentecost where he joins the court.  A veteran knight who accompanied him leads him to the Round Table and unveils an empty chair which is called the Siege Perilous or the Perilous Seat.  At the advice of Merlin this seat was kept vacant for the knight who was to achieve the Quest for the Holy Grail.

This was his first test or worthiness as this chair in the past had proved deadly for any who had previously sat there who had hoped to find the Grail.  Galahad sits in the seat and survives.  King Arthur sees this and is impressed seeing that there is something special about him and leads him down to a river  where there is a floating stone with a sword embedded in it which bears an inscription  which says,

“Never shall man take me hence but only he by whose side I ought to hang; and he shall be the best knight of the world.”

Galahad tries and takes the sword from the stone and Arthur immediately declares that he is the greatest knight ever.  Arthur invites Galahad to become a member of the Round Table which he accepts.  Not long after the mystical presence of the Holy Grail is briefly experienced by those at King Arthur’s Court and the quest to find the grail is immediately begun. All the Knights of the Round Table embark on the quest leaving Camelot virtually empty.  Arthur is sad because he knows many will die or not return and fears it is the beginning of the end of his kingdom.

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Galahad mainly traveled alone and became involved in many adventures. In one he saves Sir Percival when he was attacked by twenty knights and rescued many maidens in distress.  Eventually he meets up again with Sir Percival who is accompanied by Sir Bors and together they find the sister of Sir Percival who takes them to a ship that will take them over the sea to a distant shore.  Sadly when they reach the shore Percival’s sister has to die that another may live.  To ensure she gets a fit and proper burial Sir Bors takes her body back to her homeland.

Sir Galahad and Sir Percival continue the quest and after many adventures arrive at the court of King Pelles and his son Eliazar.  Pelles and Eliazar are holy men and take Sir Galahad into a room to show him the Holy Grail and they request that he take it to a holy city called Sarras. After being shown the Grail, Sir Galahad asks that he may he may choose the time of his own death which is granted.

While he is on the journey back to Arthur’s court Joseph of Arimathea comes to him and he experiences such feeling of ecstasy that he asks to die there and then.  He says his goodbyes to Sir Percival and Sir Bors and angels appear and he is carried off to heaven as his two friends watch.  Although there is nothing to say that the Holy Grail will not once again be seen on earth it was said that since the ascension to heaven of Galahad there has not been another knight with the necessary qualities of achieving the Holy Grail.

Galahad’s achievement of the Holy Grail

Sir Galahad and the quest for the Holy Grail is one of the later stories that appeared as Arthurian romances grew in popularity.   The thought is that King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were not pure enough to achieve such an important religious task. Galahad was introduced into the fold as one of the few who had the purity and personal qualities to qualify him as worthy enough to achieve the Holy Grail.  Just as when Arthur drew the sword from the stone and became the chosen one, Galahad did the same and also became the chosen one. He chose the kingdom of God whereas Arthur built a kingdom on earth.  In taking up the quest for the Holy Grail the priority is to the spiritual rather than the earthly life and Galahad fulfills the spiritual dimension of Arthurian romance and becomes the example for his contemporaries and those coming after him to aspire to.

via Sir Galahad the Perfect Knight

The Great Myths #29: Learning Poetry in the Giant’s Stomach (Finnish)

The poet/shaman Väinämöinen, in need of new poems and spells in order to build a boat, goes through an ordeal within the belly of a giant, the keeper of those stories. Here, the giant/ogre figure is more primordial and wise and not simply uncivilized and destructive:

Steady old Väinämöinen
when he got not words
from Tuonela’s dwellings, from
the Dead Land’s ageless abodes
keeps considering
and long he ponders
where to get words from
fetch the right spells from.
He meets a herdsman
who put this into words:
“You will get a hundred words
and a thousand tale-charms from
Antero Vipunen’s mouth
from the word-hoarder’s belly.
But he has to be gone to
and the track picked out –
it is not a good journey
but not quite the worst either:
at first you must run
upon women’s needle points
then next you must walk
on a man’s sword tips
and third must amble
on a fellow’s hatchet blades.”

Steady old Väinämöinen
certainly meant to go. He
ducks into the smith’s workshop
and says with this word:
“Smith Ilmarinen
forge iron footwear
forge iron gauntlets
make an iron shirt!
Prepare an iron cowlstaff
obtain one of steel:
put steel at its core
and on top draw soft iron!
I am off to get some words
take some mysteries
from the word-hoarder’s belly
Antero Vipunen’s mouth.”

Smith Ilmarinen
uttered a word and spoke thus:
“Vipunen has long been dead
Antero for ages has
vanished, left the trap he’d set
the path he’d baited;
from there you will get no word –
no, not even half a word.”

Steady old Väinämöinen
still went, did not heed:
for one day he stepped clinking
upon women’s needle points
for two he rambled along
upon men’s sword tips
for a third too he ambled
on a fellow’s hatchet blades.

Vipunen, he full of tales
old man word-hoarder
he lolls with his tales
with his spells he sprawls;
an aspen grew upon his shoulders
on his eyebrows a birch rose
an alder upon his chin
a willow shrub on his head
on his brow a squirrel spruce
a cony fir on his teeth.
Now Väinämöinen comes:
he drew his sword, snatch the iron
out of the holder of hide
out of the belt of leather;
he felled the aspen from the shoulders
from the eyebrows toppled the birches
from the jaws the broad alders
the willow shrubs from the beard
from the brow felled the squirrel-spruces
the cony first from the teeth.
He plunged the iron cowlstaff
into Antero Vipunen’s mouth
in his grinning gums
in his squelching jaws
and uttered a word, spoke thus:
“Rise up, serf of man
from where you lie underground
from the long sleep you’re taking!”

That Vipunen full of tales
was startled from his sleep.
He felt the one touching hard
and with pain the one teasing:
he bit the iron cowlstaff
he bit off the soft iron
but he could not bite the steel
could not eat the iron core.
At that old Väinämöinen’s
(as he stood beside the mouth)
other foot
his left foot slithers into
Antero Vipunen’s mouth
on his jawbone slid
and Vipunen full of tales
at once opened his mouth more
flung his jaw-posts wide –
swallowed the man with his sword
into his throat gulped
old Väinämöinen.

There Vipunen full of tales
put this into words:
“I’ve eaten a thing or two:
I’ve eaten ewe, eaten goat
eaten barren cow
eaten boar, but I
have not yet eaten
a morsel that tastes like this!”

Old Väinämöinen
put this into words:
“My ruin could be coming
my day of trouble looming
in this lair of a demon
this inglenook of the grave.”

He thinks, considers
how to be, which way to live.
At his belt he has a knife
with a curly-birch handle;
out of it he built a boat
he built a boat of wisdom.
He rows, he glides from
gut end to gut end
he rowed every nook
every cranny he went round.
Old Vipunen full of tales
was not going to heed that.
Then the old Väinämöinen
made himself into a smith
became a blacksmith; he changed
his shirt into a workshop
his shirtsleeves into bellows
his coat into a blower
his trousers he turned to pipes
stockings to pipe-mouthpieces
his knee into an anvil
to a hammer his elbow.
He hammers away
he tap-taps away;
hammered all night without rest
all day without a breather
in the word-hoarder’s belly
the eloquent one’s bosom.

Then Vipunen full of tales
put this into words:
“What kind of man may you be
what sort of fellow? I have
eaten a hundred fellows
destroyed a thousand men, but
I don’t think I’ve eaten such:
coal is coming into my
mouth, firebrands on to my tongue
iron dross into my throat!
Go now, wonder, on your way
earth’s evil, get a move on
before I seek your mother
and fetch your honoured parent!
If I tell your mother, speak,
report you to your parent
mother has more work
great trouble a parent has
when her son does wrong
her child misbehaves.
I have no idea at all
cannot guess your Origin
demon, where you latched on from
pest, where you have come here from
to bite, to nibble
to eat and to gnaw: are you
disease the Lord created
death decreed by God
or are you man-made
brought and wrought by someone else
put here for payment
set up for money?
If disease, the Lord’s creature
death decreed by God
I will trust my Creator
cast myself upon my God:
he’ll not cast away the good
he’ll not let the fair be lost.
But if you are man-made, a
problem caused by someone else
be sure I shall learn your kin
I’ll find out where you were born.”

The giant’s speech continues for many pages, until Väinämöinen has a chance to respond:

Steady old Väinämöinen
then put this in words:
“’Tis good for me to be here:
the liver will serve for bread
the marrow to eat with it
the lungs will be right for stew
the fats for good food
I will set up my anvil
deeper upon the heart-flesh
slam my sledgehammer harder
on still worse places
so that you’ll never get out
never in this world be free
unless I come to hear words
and fetch the right spells
and hear enough words
and a thousand charms.
Words shall not be hid
nor spells be buried
might shall not sink underground
though the mighty go.”

Then Vipunen full of tales
the old word-hoarder
with great wisdom in his mouth
boundless might in his bosom
opened his word-chest
and flung wide his box of tales
to sing some good things
set some of the best things forth –
those deep Origins
spells about the Beginning
which not all the children sing
only fellows understand
in this evil age
with time running out:
he sang Origins in depth
and spells in order
how by their Creator’s leave
at the Almighty’s command
of itself the sky was born
from the sky water parted
from the water land stretched forth
on the land all growing things;
he sand of the moon’s shaping
the sun’s placing, the fixing
of the sky’s pillars
heaven being filled with stars.
There Vipunen full of tales
indeed sang, showed what he knew!
Never in this world
was heard or was seen
a better singer
a more careful cunning man:
that mouth hurled forth words
the tongue flung phrases
as a cold its legs
a steed sturdy feet.
He sand day by day
night by night he recited
and the sun stopped to listen
the golden moon to take note;
billows stood still on the main
waves at the bay-end;
stream left off rolling
and Rutja’s rapid foaming
and Vuoski’s rapid flowing –
and Jordan’s river halted.

At that old Väinämöinen
when he had heard words
had got enough words
and fetched the right spells
set out quitting
Antero Vipunen’s mouth
and the word-hoarder’s belly
the eloquent one’s bosom.
And old Väinämöinen said:
“O Antero Vipunen
open your mouth more
fling your jaw-posts wide, so that
I may get out of your gut
on to the ground and go home!”

There Vipunen full of tales
put this into words: “Many
have I eaten, many drunk
destroyed thousands all told; but
I’ve not yet eaten any
such as old Väinämöinen!
You did well to come:
you’ll do better to return.”

Then Antero Vipunen
grinned and showed his gums
opened his mouth more
flung his jaw-posts wide:
old Väinämöinen
quitted the great wise one’s mouth
and the word-hoarder’s belly
the eloquent one’s bosom;
slips out of his mouth
trips upon the heath
like a golden squirrel, or
a gold-breasted pine marten.
He stepped from there on his way
and came to his smith’s workshop.
The smith Ilmarinen said:
“Did you get to hear some words
to fetch the right spells
for fixing the side
joining on the stern
and raising the bows?”

Steady old Väinämöinen
put this into words:
“Now I’ve got a hundred words
and thousands of charms, I have
brought the words out of hiding
unburied the spells.”
He went to his boat
on the knowledgeable stocks:
the little boat was finished
the side joint was joined
the stern-end ended
and the bows were raised
and the boat was born uncarved
the ship with no shaving pared.

 – The Kalevala, by Elias Lönnrot, book 17, 
translated by Keith Bosley, p. 199-204, 213-216

via The Great Myths #29: Learning Poetry in the Giant’s Stomach (Finnish)